While the presidential election could help unify House Republicans this year, leaders shouldn’t expect a free pass from conservatives who will not shy away from challenging leadership over key legislative items.
Following a three-day retreat in Philadelphia sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, conservative leaders and rank-and-file Members alike insisted tensions between themselves and Speaker John Boehner’s (Ohio) leadership team have helped the party draw a distinction between themselves and Democrats. And, they said, those struggles are likely to continue to a certain degree.
“We felt like we tried to play that role last year, but we want to be involved again this year” in making the case for the conservative agenda, Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (Ohio) said at the retreat.
When asked if he thought Republicans would be able to avoid some of the fighting that marred their efforts last year, Jordan said, “I think so. I hope so.” He explained that conservatives need to sharply define their differences with Democrats and that “as the Republican Conference, and conservatives in the Conference, that’s our charge this year … [to show] there’s a difference between [the nominee] and President [Barack] Obama.”
Throughout 2011, Jordan’s RSC — and conservatives in general — were a thorn in Boehner’s side. Conservatives were particularly hard on leadership on spending matters and forced Republicans into a series of ugly, drawn-out fights over continuing resolutions, the budget, the debt ceiling and a two-month extension of the payroll tax cut. Although conservatives in many ways relished the fights — viewing them as a chance to create a stark difference
between themselves and Democrats — they came at a significant cost.
Internal polling since the summer has shown that the constant threats of a government shutdown and endless brinkmanship soured the public to Republicans.
Conservatives also had a significant effect on the GOP’s policy agenda. For instance, they derailed a reauthorization of the USA PATRIOT Act temporarily last spring, and by keeping the focus on spending and the debt, they left little time for other matters in the public mind.
Conservatives, however, insist their efforts have been good for the party.
“I think tension is a good thing. It’s how you grow muscle. Stress and pressure and heat — that’s how diamonds are made,” said Rep. Steve Southerland (Fla.), one of the freshman Republicans who often banded with Jordan and other veteran conservatives last year against leadership.
“I think some of that is necessary. To say we want to do away with all the pressure and the heat would go against the proper process. … If you and I agree on everything, one of us isn’t necessary. And I think we’re both necessary. And if we work together and respect each other,” the Conference can “find some common ground,” Southerland said in Philadelphia.
Southerland — who said he does not see as many instances of infighting this year as in 2011, in part because of the maturation of the freshman class — discounted complaints about the effect of intraparty skirmishes.
Throughout the nation’s history, “you [see] great disagreement. … If the American people think [the Founding Fathers] were getting along for the four months they were [in Philadelphia] in 1787, then they haven’t studied it. They haven’t read it. Members walked out, states threatened to leave. You had great disagreement.”
Now “there’s great disagreement in Washington, D.C. Pressure is growing … [and] that gives me comfort to know that our Founding Fathers didn’t create what they created in a perfect utopia. There was dissent,” Southerland added.
But whether that dissent will help Republicans see their agenda through this year remains to be seen, and the first big test could come next month with the payroll tax cut fight.
The 20 conferees will hold their second meeting Wednesday morning and hope to delve into the policy issues to reach some level of consensus about the scope of the committee.
Spurning any opening statements, Members will try to lay out their goals, particularly the length of the payroll tax holiday and unemployment insurance extensions and duration of an adjustment to doctors’ Medicare reimbursements.
However, it remains unclear whether a conference committee deal will garner enough support among conservatives.
Freshman Rep. Dennis Ross, who was critical of leadership’s handling of the payroll tax cut debate last year, said he still has issues with a payroll tax holiday and instead favors a “big picture” approach to tax reform. That means any deal that comes out of the conference committee could lose his vote, he said.
“But in light of the political battles that remain ahead, and the beating that ensued just before Christmas, I think it’s probably prudent that the conferees resolve the issue and we move on,” the Florida Republican said recently. “There’s probably going to be anywhere from 30 to 80 members of the majority that probably won’t support it out of principle. It’s just a philosophical difference. But it’s just an issue that we have to address, and I think a protracted fight over that is not something that we need to have.”
A leadership aide downplayed the implications of continued intramural fighting and insisted leaders are already pursuing a strong conservative agenda.
“Throughout the 112th Congress, Republican leadership has actively sought the input of the leaders of the RSC and will continue to do so” this year, the leadership aide added.
Rep. Michael Burgess, a member of the Republican Doctors Caucus, said last week he is still pushing for cuts to Obama’s health care bill to offset the cost of legislation that would reverse a scheduled cut to doctors’ Medicare reimbursements. The legislation is in the scope of the payroll tax conference committee.
“I think we can pay for this all within the health care realm, and that’s really where it should all be done — and yes, it does mean taking some money from the Affordable Care Act,” the Texas lawmaker said.